Mediation ground rules come up now and then in the graduate mediation classes I teach or in my mediation trainings. Since I don’t set ground rules at the beginning of my mediations, and this often causes a stir among mediators who’ve been trained otherwise, I thought I’d outline my reasons here for reference.
Early in their training, some (many?) mediators are taught and encouraged to use ground rules. Sometimes this is taught simply because that’s the way the trainer was taught and the trainer’s trainer was taught, and so on. This is a mediator version of that old story about the woman who cuts off the ends of the pot roast just like her mother did.
Sometimes mediation ground rules are taught because they can be a helpful crutch for novice mediators who don’t yet have the depth of learning or experience to handle difficult behaviors in other more effective ways.
Crutches like these are intended for temporary, not permanent, use. It’s a good thing to step back periodically and reconsider what we think we know, and push ourselves out of our own comfort zone. Mediating by rote is a sign we’re stuck in our own habits, habits that may well not be serving our clients consistently well.
The process of setting mediation ground rules typically takes one of three forms, from most hard-nosed to least:
- Listing a few behaviors the mediator considers problematic and informing the parties they will not be tolerated.
- Listing a few behaviors the mediator considers problematic and asking the parties to commit not to do them.
- Inviting the parties to identify behaviors they don’t want to experience during the mediation and using their list to set ground rules.
Common ground rules I hear mediators use typically run along these lines:
- We agree to take turns speaking and not to interrupt the other (or, I’m asking you not to interrupt each other).
- We will not blame or attack each other (or, if I notice blaming and attacking, I will interrupt and ask you to stop).
- We will not curse at each other or use coercive language (or, I will not allow coercion, bullying, or expletives in my mediation room).
- And so on…
I do none of this and here’s why.
The reasons I don’t set mediation ground rules at the start
1. I see my job not as preventing people from bringing their worst to the conversation, but helping them bring their best.
I’m prepared to help them avoid their worst, of course, but I find it much more fruitful to support people in elevating their better selves. It’s far less painful for them, and for me.
2. It’s not the tone I want to set at the start
Conflict is defeating enough without the mediator outlining the ways she expects the participants may misbehave and what she’ll do to stop it. I’d much rather assume reasonable behavior from my clients (and my expectations are usually met…hmmm) and step in as needed to support a different behavior if something goes temporarily south.
I find that treating people as the responsible adults they are has helpful impact and reflects the non-judgmental presence so crucial for mediation.
3. I can’t possibly imagine all the behavioral challenges we might face, so why implement a blanket set of rules?
People do not come in one size and shape, so how can ground rules? In my experience, mediators who set ground rules at the start tend to use the same set of rules over and over.
But behaviors I see in five mediations in a row may not show up in the following five, so I muddy the waters if I impose a ground rule that has little meaning for the second five groups. Or I fail to address anything that may actually come up.
4. I can manage difficult behaviors far more effectively than with a rule
Imposing rules is a practice weighed down with a faulty assumption: That telling someone to act in a certain way (or not act in a certain way) means they will. Really, how often in our lives has someone suddenly stopped a habit because we told them to?
I have a toolbox full of effective and still non-judgmental strategies and tactics to help people bring their best selves to the conversation. If you don’t, it is well worth the investment to build yourself a toolbox that will give you far greater influence, impact, and agility.
5. Participants miss a great deal of what’s said in the opening
Imagine sitting down across from someone whose presence enrages you, scares you, throws you off balance, makes you look bad, makes you look great. What are you thinking about?
Now imagine someone talking to you for several minutes while you’re thinking about the problem, the mess you’re in, what’s going to happen, what you want to remember to say, what you fear they’re going to say, and so on. How much of what the mediator says do you hear and absorb?
I’d rather focus on the truly crucial opening elements in hopes they can absorb those few things, and then get down to work.
6. Nothing prevents the implementation of a ground rule later
If the mediation is underway and a certain behavior is getting in the way, it’s perfectly reasonable to explore a ground rule then. Instead of a blanket set of rules, then, we can discuss a very specific rule for a very specific circumstance. I rarely need to do this, given my toolbox, but it does come up now and then.
7. If a participant requests a ground rule up front, that’s fine
Every now and then a participant wants a ground rule up front, something he knows may help stop a certain behavior that brings forward momentum to a screeching halt. Of course I welcome conversation about this, which can be very fruitful and is quite different than me imposing or inviting the creation of a list of bad behaviors to avoid.
8. Research supports the idea
A classic psychology experiment demonstrates that people have a hunch about the ways others see them…and begin exhibiting the expected behaviors. You can find more here: Want better conflict behavior from someone? Start by expecting it.
Group norms instead of ground rules?
I’m sometimes asked if I support the idea of setting group norms in lieu of ground rules at the beginning of a mediation. While some use the terms interchangeably, others see this difference:
Group norms are usually co-created, with time for consideration (instead of an exercise to be gotten through) and updated as the team’s interactions grow organically over time. Group norms suggest, “This is what we believe will help create robust dialogue in our group,” while ground rules suggest, “Don’t violate these rules or you’re not a team player.” Group norms are an invitation, ground rules an order.
Here are examples of group norms one may see in conflict resolution situations:
- It’s OK to disagree. You don’t need to share another’s thinking about everything we talk about. How you challenge will can the difference between stubborn debate and real dialogue.
- “Try it on” before reacting. Try to avoid an immediate “yes, but” reaction to new ideas and risk letting an idea sink in before accepting or rejecting.
- It’s OK to change your mind. Everyone has the right to alter an opinion without needing to defend or explain the change.
In my book, inviting parties to consider what would help them bring their best listening, thinking, and problem-solving to the table is a different experience than the typical mediation ground rules described above.
I have very occasionally invited conversation about group norms when working with a large group of people who will continue to work together, as a way to step into the conversation thoughtfully.
Ultimately, it is this question I ask myself as I prepare my opening strategy and consider how to help my parties bring their best possible self to the conversation: What does this particular situation with these particular parties merit that I do?